MY YEAR OF NEW WORDS, PART 7: NYMS

April is both a personal name and the name of a month. It’s a homonym (a word with two meanings) and nyms are the theme for this post. We’ve got synonyms, acronyms, homonyms (and homophones—which sound alike but spell differently, like bear and bare—and homographs—which spell alike but sound different like bow and bow). A student suggested homosapiens (pronounced like homonyms) for people that look alike. It was a nice idea but too hard to explain the phonetics because homo sapiens would be a homograph. We’ll have to stick with doppelganger, which doesn’t quite capture the idea of a family resemblance. There are hyphenyms, and acronyms and their cousins initialisms (if you say FAQ as letters, that’s an initialism; if you say it as fak, that an acronym).

Retronyms are new compounds that come about when the meaning of an older term shifts: acoustic guitar, snailmail, print book. One of the ways too that we fix the meaning is by reduplication: instead of a print book we may refer to a book book.

There are contranyms, too—words that have two opposite meanings, like oversight (watching over or not noticing) or sanction (to approve or to forbid). When you get a speeding ticket you can call it a citation of expediency (and list it on your resume). The contranym that everyone loves to hate (and vice versa) is literally, which is used to mean either literally or figuratively. Hence the non-word illiterally, meaning either figuratively or literally, I suppose. By the way, don’t blame literally on today’s youth or Rob Lowe’s character on Parks and Rec. It was used by Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, and others. It’s literally more than a century old.

In the course of the year I wanted to invent a few new nyms, so I added fetonyms (words or meanings joined by folk etymology, such as May Day and mayday, from the French word for help) and transponyms (words that differ only in the switching of two letters, like chai and chia, casual and causal, gasp and gaps). Polyphones are words (like economics or either) that have more than one acceptable pronunciation and a sesquipediment is a very long word that you have to stop and look up.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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